STEUBEN, Maine — Professional astronomers in Italy have confirmed that an amateur astronomy team headed by Doug Rich of Hampden recently discovered a newly visible exploding star in a galaxy that is 420 million light years from Earth.
The discovery was made April 7 by the Eagle Hill Supernova Search team as part of a new astronomy initiative at the nonprofit Eagle Hill Institute in the Washington County community of Steuben.
The search team organized in January made the discovery after examining nearly 4,000 images of galaxy UGC 4578 in the constellation Lynx that were originally captured by Rich at his home-based observatory in Hampden.
Using a process known as “blink comparing,” search team members Joe Rosebush and Charlie Sawyer, who are members of the Pembroke-based Downeast Amateur Astronomers organization, compared one of Rich’s earlier images with a new image captured on April 6. A verification image of the suspected supernova was shot on April 7 at the home observatory of Rich’s friend Paul Burke of Pittsfield, as conditions in Hampden that night were too cold for observation.
The discovery was further verified by an astronomy team associated with the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Asiago, Italy, using a 1.8 meter telescope. Spectroscopic analysis conducted in Italy by astronomer Andrea Pastorello and his team confirmed that the new supernova, designated SN 2013bl, was a type llb supernova.
Rich said Monday in a statement announcing the discovery that supernovas, which he describes as “the explosive death of a star,” can be triggered in two ways. In the first scenario, a small, dense star known as a white dwarf can explode after exceeding its critical mass by acquiring extra material from a companion star. In the second scenario, the core of a massive star can collapse and subsequently, the entire star explodes. SN 2013bl, falls into the second category.
“Type llb supernovae are very rare,” Rich said. “Last year, out of 640 classified supernovae, only 10 were type llb.”
A retired air traffic controller, Rich heads up the Supernova Search Team. He has been actively hunting supernovae for 10 years and has discovered a total of 23 supernovae.
“This is my most distant discovery yet,” Rich said Monday afternoon. “The ‘runner up’ is about 400 light years out. The team members I’m working with in this initiative seem very enthusiastic and dedicated, which are necessary qualifications for pursuing this kind of thing. This is a very commendable achievement.”
“This is a pretty huge milestone for our astronomy initiative here,” said Jason Wimbiscus, the media relations coordinator for the Eagle Hill Institute, a 150-acre complex situated on the high point of the Dyer Neck Peninsula.
Joerg-Henner Lotze, the director of the institute, said last October when the astronomy initiative was first announced that future plans would include the construction of a five-story observation tower located on a hilltop that offers an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the sky.
“We now have some rough plans,” Lotze said Monday. “And we were also awarded a grant that will fund construction of a small observatory for a 12-inch telescope that we recently acquired. Now we’re working on a grant to acquire a professional-grade asteroid searching system.
“This supernova discovery is every exciting,” Lotze said. “And it gives our program some traction.”
For more information about the new astronomy initiative, call (207) 546-2821 or go to eaglehill.us/astronomy.